There are probably spoilers in this “review,” because, frankly, it’s hard to avoid them with Princess Tutu. I didn’t spoil anything super-major, I don’t think, but tread carefully, those who are wary of spoilers.
I remember, way back in 2002 (when Princess Tutu had started airing, conspicuously close to the date when I started watching anime in earnest) hearing about Princess Tutu, favorable comparisons of it to Revolutionary Girl Utena (which I had not watched at that point, except maybe a couple episodes), and people of all sorts going nuts over it in a small corner where they could all discuss the series. I also remember watching the first half (through episode 13) and really enjoying it, but somehow never getting around to finishing the series proper; eventually, ADV licensed it, and the library bought a copy of the first volume and stuck it in the kids’ section next to Angelina Ballerina. I can only imagine some of the confused looks on kids’ faces when they popped in Princess Tutu expecting Angelina Ballerina and getting…Princess Tutu, complete with horribly terrifying Drosselmeyer. Nightmares must have ensued.
I picked up the DVD set recently, excitedly ready to revisit the series with five years of anticipation on the backburner ready to simmer over, and finally found the time to start watching it this Thanksgiving while on break from school. Time being the precious commodity that it is these days, I’ve only just now gotten the chance to finish it (upon hitting the last disc, I figured it’d be better to watch it all at once rather than in two-episode bites as I’d been doing; this, of course, meant that I had to delay watching it on our new HDTV, which meant, more or less, having to actually wait to be able to use the basement television, an as-yet unheard of proposition, sending best-laid plans out of whack as they are wont to do.
The fun and interesting aspect of Princess Tutu, aside from the sheer girlishness of watching anime about ballerinas with Okazaki Ritsuko openings–which, I admit, is 90% of the appeal and one must be ready for epic ballet dances if one is going to watch Princess Tutu–is the amazingly convoluted story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-ballet-within-a-story, and that long hyphenated phrase probably isn’t half as long as it really should be. Taking place in a city where Drosselmeyer, an author of stories reknowned for his ability to make stories come to life–literally–has constructed a mechanism that effectively imprisons the city within a “story”, which he controls from his vantage point within the cogwheels and gears of the mechanism. Drosselmeyer and the spinning gears of the story, grinding towards their inevitable, tragic conclusion–Drosselmeyer, we learn, is not only creepy as hell, but a big fan of tragedy. Really big fan.
you gonna get danced with son
Of course, this being strange meta-fiction, the characters stalwartly refuse to remain characters in Drosselmeyer’s stories. Ahiru (I refuse to call her Duck, ADV, do you hear me?), the protagonist of Princess Tutu, is merely two sentences in Drosselmeyer’s story of the Raven and the Prince. And yet this two-sentence character takes on a stronger and stronger role in the story proper until the story itself is about her–Fakir, after learning wallhax discovering his power, descended from Drosselmeyer, to write stories that are real, finds himself unable to write a story about Mytho, who he, according to his role in the story, is destined to protect, but yet he finds that he can easily and freely write about Ahiru/Princess Tutu, who wasn’t supposed to be important at all.
More importantly, all expectations of how theseries would turn out given at the start of the series (which starts exactly like a fairy tale crossed with mahou shoujo) and built up through the first half are knocked down, steadily and systematically, in the second half. The first half flows exactly as you’d expect a mahou shoujo series to flow, done sublimely and with grace, as befiutting its ballet motif. The ballet aspect works well in emphasizing the meta-fiction aspect of the series: whenever Princess Tutu shows up, the backgrounds, normally standard anime, suddenly fade to white lines on black as though they were now proscenium, and spotlights show up on the characters like they’re on stage performing an act. Drosselmeyer’s story encompasses, generally, only this aspect, while the outside events grind their way through each episode to produce the desired conclusion. It’s only in the second half that the lines between what is “story” and what is “real” start to blur and get mind-bendingly confusing.
I’m no expert on ballet, since I lack sufficient culture points to pour into that stat at the moment, but Princess Tutu overall feels extremely like a ballet. I’ve heard hearsay that the plot structure is quite similar to an actual ballet, and I’m inclined to believe that. Ballet often is described as a form of interpretive dance, I believe–and if not, I’m calling it that for now, so take that, centuries of art scholarship–and while the actual dance the characters may be performing at the moment is often interpreted in dialogue by the characters themselves (thereby preventing me from being horribly confused at these moments, and, instead, only normal levels of Princess Tutu-generated confusion), the “dance” and the “interpretation” might not exactly be what we might think it is in Princess Tutu. Are the main characters merely performing an elaborate act, or do they have free will? If they have free will, do they only think they have free will because the story wants them to think such? Why is my brain puddled on the floor and quivering slightly?
I believe this image sums up the elegance of Princess Tutu–both character and anime.
However you wish to interpret Princess Tutu, it’s still seemingly sadly overlooked. A series that literally breaks the fourth wall as Princess Tutu does seems like it would require razor-sharp precision to avoid making a misstep and sending everything awry, yet it accomplishes that delicate task with the grace and finesse true to its ballet motif. It refuses to succumb to the expectations one might have of the series: the ending was nothing like how I’d imagine it would have worked out from episode 1, and yet everything that led to the grand finale made perfect, logical sense as the story unfolded, and never felt forced. Perfect? No–but I’m also perfectly sure I don’t care if it isn’t.
I still feel like going to a ballet, though.